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Biden Has His 1st Conversation With Russian Counterpart Putin

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

President Biden had his first call with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Biden did not shy away from raising concerns over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, cyberespionage and the bounties on American troops. That is a big contrast with the open admiration former President Trump expressed for Putin. We're joined now to talk about it by NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Hi there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: So what exactly did Biden and Putin talk about in their first phone call?

KIM: Well, the main thing they talked about was the New START treaty. This is the last nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, and it literally expires at the end of next week. The Trump administration tried to add new conditions to the treaty in its negotiations with Russia. That failed. And now there's not any time left, and it looks like both sides are going for a straight five-year extension as provided for in the treaty.

As for the other things they talked about, the Kremlin emphasizes in its readout that they talked about cooperation in fighting the coronavirus and bilateral trade. But the White House readout, as you mentioned, brings up some of the more thorny issues like Alexei Navalny, of Russian election interference and the recent cyberattack on the U.S. government. So the Kremlin was much more diplomatic and conciliatory in its tone, while it seems the White House was much tougher.

MCCAMMON: So some mixed messages there - probably no surprise under the circumstances, though. And we know, Lucian, that Biden has met Putin before, when Biden was vice president under Obama. But what do we know about the personal relationship between these two men?

KIM: This is not an easy relationship. I don't think there's any love lost between Biden and Putin. But all the Russian experts I've talked to say Putin is also pragmatic, and he's ready to do business. And in some sense, he's really desperate to get the attention of the United States. You know, despite all of Trump's admiration for Putin, he left relations in a really bad place. The last time we know that there was a phone call between the Russian and American presidents was six months ago - last summer.

Biden understands the U.S. needs to deal with Russia, and he's in a hurry to extend the New START treaty. But I think it's very telling how he made this phone call. He did it after Antony Blinken was confirmed as secretary of state and as Blinken and the other foreign ministers of the G-7 condemned Navalny's imprisonment. Besides that, quite symbolically, Biden also called the secretary general of NATO yesterday. This all sends a very clear message to Putin that the U.S. is again working with its allies and will very loudly criticize the Kremlin.

MCCAMMON: So as we've said, new administration, very different approach to Russia and many other things. How should we expect U.S.-Russia relations to change under Biden?

KIM: Well, Biden called Russia the biggest threat to U.S. national security and its allies during the election campaign. And this statement was heard in Moscow as well. Nobody I've talked to here expects relations to get any better. So in the short term, it looks like both sides can agree that renewing New START is a win-win situation. But in this phone call with Putin, Biden also alluded to a lot of the huge stumbling blocks that lie ahead. These are issues that won't go away and will dominate the bilateral agenda.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Lucian Kim, thanks so much.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.